Popularizing (& Confusing) the Market Transition

The Market Revolution : Jacksonian America, 1815-1846
Charles Grier Sellers, 1991

I read this after reading a lot of books and articles debating the market transition, and it was a strange experience. While the debate was usually conducted within the academy, this book crossed over a bit into th realm of popular history. And Sellers really doesn't engage with the academics who had been writing about the subject for a couple of decades. Instead, he tells his own story of antinomianism, arminianism, and peasant animism, wavering between a sort-of determinist conspiracy theory where “Lawyers were the shock troops of capitalism” and a religious morality play, where “Edwards’s revolutionary New Light, as finally modulated to the stresses of capitalist accommodation by Finney’s genius, nerved Americans for the personal transformation required by a competitive market” (47, 235). Neither is satisfying, but along the way there’s plenty of interesting information I can look into further.

The Jeffersonians aren’t heroes in Sellers’ story. In 1802 Treasury Secretary Albert Gallatin “convinced Congress to allocate land revenues from the new state of Ohio for a National Road connecting it with the Potomac via southwestern Pennsylvania, where his own investments were concentrated”(62). The “Fourteenth Congress, convening in prosperous peace in December 1815, was filled with enterprise-minded lawyers” who took credit for “saving the republic from the military ineptitude of penny-pinching, old-fogy Republicanism” (70). Monroe “falling thousands of dollars in debt to the [Second] Bank’s chief promotor, John Jacob Astor, who regularly subsidized his habit of living beyond his means,” is also interesting (80). But “The Adamses epitomized both the fruits and human costs of the self-repressive effort exacted by capitalist transformation.  The sublimation of psychic energy that fueled the country’s astonishing surge of production also generated the emotional intensity that John Quincy Adams displaced onto his beloved republic” (95). I agree Adams was high-strung, but seriously, what do these sentences mean? I think the story flows much more smoothly when Sellers describes events like “the dramatic reversal of Republican tradition” when, in President Madison’s words, Republicans were “reconciled to certain measures and arrangements which may be as proper now as they were premature or suspicious when urged by champions of Federalism” (101). Sellers has an eye for irony: this is a beautiful explanation of the role of parties in American politics.

In another ironic passage, Sellers describes Senator John Taylor (“of Caroline”) and his 1814
Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the United States. Taylor’s analysis of “capitalist exploitation of American agricultural labor” anticipates Marx, Sellers suggests. But it’s also absurd. “This doomed aristocrat, elaborating the labor theory of value while slave labor supplied his every want,” Sellers says, “epitomized the contradictions of the capitalist transformation” (120). This is the tension I always feel when reading Foner. Is it possible for a group as wrong as Southern Congressmen were, to articulate a valid indictment of Northern wage-based industry? And if not, is part of the tragedy of the antebellum period the fact that there was no one in a credible position to say what needed to be said about the way capitalist institutions were developing? Is that the lesson of American politics in this period, that both sides are so compromised that there is never any pure ground to stand on, so you make your choice of the lesser evil? Did people at the time “get” this?  “Rotation in office” became the “spoils system” under Jackson -- was anyone surprised?

Sellers says “it is not surprising that the state banks, most having suspended specie payments during the war [of 1812], were reluctant to resume redeeming their notes in gold or silver coin on demand. With specie payments suspended, new banks could open on no other capital than stock loans and a little borrowed specie, and then force their notes into circulation by lending freely. Established banks could earn dividends of 12 to 20 percent by extending loans and note issues far beyond their specie reserves. The resulting uncontrolled inflation threatened sound growth,” but of course it seemed like a good idea at the time, to each person who took the notes or loans from their eager local banker (133). The question Sellers doesn’t really address is, how is it these banks were
allowed  to do this? There’s more going on than just an old fashioned culture (in which Jefferson cosigns his friend Nicholas’ loan and loses his fortune, 138) that doesn’t understand what’s happening, isn’t there?  Time to read some books on banking history.

In 1818, “with Henry Clay as its well-rewarded supervising attorney, the [new] national Bank [began] ruthlessly stripping its western debtors of their property. Most of Cincinnati fell into its hands” (138). But the people reacted and “General William Henry Harrison, popular hero of Tippecanoe, bank director, and longtime grandee, was hard run for the state senate by an upstart radical lawyer and hero of the city’s working class” (165). Image politics began in 1828, Sellers says, when “Farmers and workers were baffled as well as threatened by the abstraction and complexity of the interests and issues that engaged calculating elites,” and as a result “Jackson’s charisma froze voters into a pattern of party identifications favoring his entourage” (297). Were the issues that difficult? Were the people that dim? Who, then, was the audience for “self-taught mechanic/intellectual” William M. Gouge’s 1833
Short History of Paper Money and Banking?

When Jackson vetoed the Bank recharter, was he leading or following?  The rhetoric was right on target: “The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes...Many of our rich men have not been content with equal protection and equal benefits, but have besought us to make them richer by act of Congress” (325) If the “Bank War was the acid test of American democracy,” how is it no one in Jackson’s administration understood what throwing control back to unregulated state banks was going to do to the money supply? (321) It’s hard to see, recalling the post-1812 inflation Sellers described, how anyone believed that without controls the result would be a return to metallic “real” money. So either part of the story is missing, or people weren’t honest. “Legislatures chartered over two hundred new banks in three years, pushing the total over six hundred. As the money supply (bank notes, deposits, and circulating specie [he forgets promissory notes, which were used extensively and functioned as cash]) swelled from $172 million in 1834 to $276 million in 1836, prices shot up 50%.” Thomas Hart Benton complained “I did not join in putting down the Bank of the United States, to put up a wilderness of local banks...I did not join in putting down the paper currency of a national bank, to put up a national paper currency of a thousand local banks” (344). What
had he expected?

The Specie Circular was overturned by Congress in December 1836 by Whigs and “Conservative Democrats,” and “Jackson’s last official act was a pocket veto sustaining his hard-money policy against the bipartisan dismay of politicians.” Jackson came to Washington as a result of the Panic of 1819, and left after setting off the Panic of 1837. “Economic disaster and multiplying immigrants--from 38,914 in 1838 to 104,565 in 1842--soon brought plebeian nativism to a boil” and launched America on its irrevocable path toward urban industrial capitalism. Really?  US population in 1840 totaled 17,069,453. The 1842 "tsunami" of immigration amounted to less than one percent of the total population. Even if the immigrants had all arrived in and remained in New York City (they didn’t), they would have made up only about 25% of that city’s population. A little more engagement with data, and a little less armchair psychology, would have made this a more readable and persuasive book.

So how did the academy react? In 1992, the
Journal of the Early Republic invited a panel to participate in a Symposium on Market Revolution  (Somehow, the Journal managed to not invite a number of social historians who had been working on the market revolution for decades. But many of these historians had a chance to be heard in Stokes and Conway’s 1996 book). Kicking off was Richard Ellis, a former student of Sellers’ who said that although the book did “not pay the careful attention to detail” that people had come to expect from Sellers, his comprehensiveness [and]...aggressive presentation of meaningful and provocative generalizations...will act as a catalyst for numerous doctoral dissertations” (447). Mary Blewett hinted that social historians had already moved well beyond Sellers’ generalizations and suspected they would be frustrated and disappointed by his synthesis (454). Joel Silbey subtly suggested that Sellers was simply following a line of argument “so well explored and synthesized previously by Harry Watson." In his turn, Watson recalled that resistance to the market transition has been discussed in the terms Sellers uses by Henretta, Clark, Kulikoff, etc.

In his defense, Sellers admitted that the “theologisms” in the book are daunting, but says that’s the way it has to be. He reiterated his belief that “the Protestant tension between antinomianism and arminianism was the central tension in early American life.” Religion, he said, “demands the special attention of historians because through it, as through politics, the largest numbers of people most visibly register their reactions to their circumstances.” This is probably my biggest issue with Sellers approach.  Politics is an imperfect mirror of regular people’s ideas about life and society, because they most often are choosing from a set menu (between the giant douche or the turd sandwich, to put it in South Park terminology). But
at least there are no institutional barriers to political participation. Regular people are at least theoretically eligible to play. The whole point of the religious game in early America was control from above. Even where the message was individual, internal salvation through grace, the medium was still an elite white guy in the pulpit, who the lay people were indoctrinated to believe and follow. “Nothing could be more liberating for American historians,” Sellers says, “than recognizing our own embeddedness in the liberal ideology we should be subjecting to critical analysis” (475). I actually agree, but I think the same goes for Sellers’ own embeddedness in theology.